I took this movie out of the DVD shop more or less at random - I hadn't seen any of Yasuzo Masumuras movies before (but had read a little about him).
I was quite simply blown away by this movie. It is incredibly beautiful and moving, and more importantly is genuinely unique to my knowledge in its approach. I know of no other movie which has linked sexuality (it is a surprisingly sensual and erotic movie) to warfare in this way. It is also incredibly rich thematically, there is enough in this movie for a few PhDs! The story is superficially quite simple. Nurse Sakura Nishi is posted to an army hospital in the Manchuran War, Japans war of aggression in China that some historians see as part of the initial states of WWII. The hospital takes a ruthless approach to the injured solders, it is a case of patch them up, and get them back to the front. The amputee cases are packed off to secured hospitals in China, so the public at home never get to see with their own eyes the result of the bitter warfare. A soldier rapes Nurse Nishi, but this is treated coldly as a minor matter by the authorities, the solder is simply packed back to the front early as a punishment. Nurse Nishi seems to treat it as part of the job.
In a remarkable sequence, Nurse Nishi cares for an armless soldier who pines for his wife at home, but realises the military top brass will never let him return to Japan. She cares for him, and even relieves him sexually. This is where the movie comes closest to its exploitation origins, but it is handled in a very sensitive way - Masumuru shows his incredible skill and control of the material here.
Nurse Nishi is sent to the front lines. Here she meets and falls in love with an embittered, morphine addicted doctor, Dr. Okabe. He is brutally casual with her love, knowing that they can never have a normal life together, but she slowly reaches into her humanity.
They are both then sent to a small outpost, about to be over run by advancing Chinese Nationalist soldiers. They know they are doomed - this realisation opens them both up, and in further remarkable scenes they play with their role as 'officer' and 'nurse', as she dresses up in his uniform and orders him around. In the hands of a lesser director and actors this would be painful to watch, but again its handled beautifully and says more about the nature of the military, power exchange between men and women, and Japanese society than numerous other entire movies.
The movie is very brutal - it will be hard to get from your mind the images of piles of amputated limbs and the despair of soldiers who know they are on a virtual suicide mission in a war they don't understand. It is relentlessly anti-war except for the end, where there is a more conventional set up of the Japanese soldiers defending bravely against overwhelming odds. The movie can be criticised for an underemphasis on the roots of the war and the brute racism of the Japanese army at the time. Also, the 'comfort women' in the movie are portrayed as Chinese prostitutes, not the sex slaves which most historians believe they were. But these are relatively minor quibbles with a movie that is relentless in its portrayal of war.
I'd recommend anyone watching this on DVD (my version is on Yume Pictures) to see the contemporary trailer. Its pure exploitation fodder, obviously trying to get an audience who think it'll show kinky goings on in a war hospital, almost in a Carry on Nurse type way. Perhaps this is how Masumura sold it to his studio. This may also have influenced his decision on certain scenes, but there is no doubt that this movie deserves to be on any list of best war movies, or best Japanese movies.
I don't like to use that overused term 'Masterpiece', but its unavoidable for this movie. There are other war movies as powerful, but i can't think of any that are better.